The bar for climate leadership set by the Trump administration was low enough to trip over. Joe Biden hasn’t tripped in its first hundred days. He’s cleared the bar decisively with a new emissions target and a pledge to spend roughly $1 trillion on climate priorities over the next eight years, and by a bigger margin than just about anyone would have expected from a career centrist. But with a world “on the verge of the abyss,” as UN Secretary-General António Guterres summarized recently, that bar is the wrong one to be watching.
That Biden has consistently framed climate action as an engine of job creation and a massive investment opportunity is a welcome corrective to rhetoric about shrinking personal carbon footprints and technocratic tweaks. Yet spending just 0.5% of GDP each year to reduce emissions, as the American Jobs Plan intends, is nowhere near enough to take on an existential threat. It’s also worth remembering that, for now, even those modest commitments are just rhetoric: nothing has passed.
Neither will the climate crisis be solved by simply throwing money at the industries of tomorrow. For a decent shot of capping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the 2020 Production Gap Report finds that global fossil fuel production will have to decline 6% each year through 2030. It’s currently on track to increase by 2% annually. US natural gas production – which pours prolific amounts of heat-trapping methane into the atmosphere – could grow to record levels in 2022 as fuel demand surges back.
Biden can play nice with deficit hawks and the fossil fuel industry, or he can tackle the climate crisis at the speed and scale required. Not both.
Inheriting the US presidency from the most incapable person to ever hold the office was never going to make for an easy job. That would be true under any circumstances, let alone under circumstances defined by the overlapping crises of a global pandemic, entrenched racism and a climate on the brink.
Joe Biden’s administration deserves credit for its work in inching the country toward managing the Covid-19 crisis. While much remains to be done – particularly in ensuring equitable vaccine access – the US is inarguably in a better position on the pandemic front than it was on 19 January.
The results of Biden’s presidency elsewhere are, so far, significantly more mixed. Rolling back some Trump-era immigration restrictions is a good thing, but maintaining Trump’s catastrophically inhumane limits on the entry-access to the US of refugees and asylum – seekers isn’t magically more humane just because Biden isn’t Trump. On matters of racial justice, in particular surrounding the policing crisis, Biden seems more or less satisfied to return to the timidly liberal approach of former president Barack Obama, offering justice department investigations and further investments into policing when the only solution to epidemic and racist police violence is to reimagine public safety entirely. Finally, Biden’s approach to the climate crisis is the most significant presidentially supported climate plan in US history, but, as supporters of the Green New Deal have made clear, it’s still insufficient to meet the magnitude of that crisis.
Biden’s successes in steering the country toward a post-pandemic reality are laudable. His embrace of some aspects of the Green New Deal demonstrates the ability of progressives to reframe policy debates in important ways and see them adopted into the mainstream discourse. And yet, his refusal to be more ambitious in tackling many of our other shared crises demonstrates the work still to be done.
Expectations were low. When Joe Biden entered the White House in January, the nation was still reeling from the 6 January insurrection. For a moment, it was unclear whether the transition of power could be carried through without more violence. Just getting him sworn in seemed like a success.
Once he was in office, Biden offered Americans, weary from the Trump years, some much-longed-for stability. His Covid stimulus bill was of a size appropriate to meet the scale of need. Vaccine distribution and administration, a logistical nightmare under Trump, ramped up rapidly once adults were in charge. Shots went into arms, and the end of the pandemic has become thinkable, at least in the US. Meanwhile, Biden spoke to the nation in calm, coherent sentences, and didn’t seem to hold Americans in contempt. This was an improvement.
But for all the talk during the transition of Biden’s hope to be a transformative president, his policy agenda still faces substantial obstacles. His ambitious American Jobs Act was laughed at, even by members of his own party, for classifying traditionally feminized labor as “infrastructure”; his American Families Act, geared toward helping women in the workforce, has sparked backlash from cultural conservatives, even as it falls far short of the universal childcare proposals that were put forth during the primary season. He has made nice comments about climate change and gender justice, but it remains unclear how much force he is willing to put behind those sentiments. Fortunately, the administration has shown itself amenable to pressure from the left and public shaming: they backed off a decision to maintain a Trump-era cap on refugees after public outcry from the Democratic rank and file.
Understandably, Americans have so far been grading Biden on a curve. Now it’s time to raise our standards.
Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office illustrate the sharp distinctions between the president and his predecessor, and why politics is so dangerous when played as a game of personality and not a competition of competence. Since taking office, Biden has secured a $2tn Covid-19 relief package; recommitted the US to the Paris climate accords; planned a tax hike on the wealthiest Americans; announced a withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan; revealed an ambitious infrastructure package; and rolled out a startlingly successful mass vaccination program. Trump, by contrast, spent nearly one in every five of his first 100 days on the golf course.
But the issues Biden has prioritized also hint at who he is trying to keep (or get) on his side: the white working-class voters who defected from Obama to Trump, some of whom then came back to Biden. Left out are many of the issues most important to the Democratic base, including immigration and reproductive rights. With the stroke of a pen, Biden could allow many more refugees to be resettled in the US; instead, his administration initially said they would stick with the Trump numbers, before quickly walking that back and saying they’d raise numbers by May. In the meantime, though, the world’s most vulnerable people have spent unnecessary months languishing in wait, often after years or even decades of waiting. And while Biden swiftly overturned some of Trump’s worst policies on US funding of reproductive healthcare overseas, that puts his administration in the same position as Bill Clinton in the 1990s – it’s better than under Trump, but could hardly be called progress.
Biden deserves much praise for all the good he has done. But he’s also made clear where he’s willing to spend his political capital – and so far, it’s not on women’s rights, immigration or racial justice.
In more normal political times, Biden’s record during his first 100 days in office wouldn’t have inspired comparisons to FDR. But in the wake of Trump’s malignant incompetence, Biden’s success in returning government to something like functionality seems, to his supporters at least, almost worthy of Mount Rushmore.
In fact, Biden has kept his administration focused on his principal goals of overcoming the pandemic and reviving the economy, while also issuing a slew of executive orders reversing his predecessor’s policies. The acceleration in vaccine distribution under his watch has been the envy of other nations, and congressional passage of the $1.9tn Covid-19 relief package has helped to supercharge the economy by flooding it with cash.
But Biden’s early days have also emphasized the intractability of most of the country’s problems. Covid relief passed without a single Republican vote, and the upcoming infrastructure bill seems likely to do the same. Biden’s professed love of bipartisanship hasn’t changed the underlying reality of hyper-partisanship and culture war. He can hardly claim to have restored public faith in government when a sizable fraction of that public persists in believing Trump the true winner of the 2020 election (and refusing vaccination). Friendly media coverage can’t hide the growing crisis at the border, and there’s no widespread agreement on an approach to the forces driving mass immigration (including global heating). Nor has the administration even begun to rally mass opinion behind a systemic approach to the interlinked problems of guns, crime and police violence.
Biden’s first 100 days will merit comparison with FDR’s only if he can forge an FDR-like consensus. So far there is little sign of that happening.
Government can change lives for the better. For years the American public was told that the economy stood alone and state intervention in it would only backfire. Now the Biden administration has repudiated that key tenet of neoliberalism in its first 100 days.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provided $1.9tn in stimulus for the US economy. More than half those funds were allocated for direct aid, including housing, unemployment and nutrition assistance, as well as childcare allowances for families.
Biden also harnessed the Defense Production Act of 1950 to help with vaccine and protective equipment production. As commentator James Medlock said: “The era of ‘the era of big government is over’ is over.”
But while Biden has shown a surprising willingness to partner with leftwing politicians like Bernie Sanders and respond to the demands of the moment, despite his previous deficit hawk positions, we shouldn’t overstate the transformation. The world economy is in deep crisis due to coronavirus and measures to slow its spread; there is consensus from most actors about the use of the state to revive demand and keep businesses and workers afloat. Even Trump and congressional Republicans were willing to pump money into the economy.
What will happen, however, when things return to normal?
Biden has not shown a willingness to prioritize the measures that could more permanently alter the unequal US economy – a $15 minimum wage failed to win support among 50 Democratic senators, and the Pro Act, which would make it easier for workers to form unions, has dim prospects of passage.
We might look back at the first 100 days of the Biden administration as featuring a brief moment of budgetary liberalism only to be followed the old, failed policies. That won’t only be bad for working families, it could pave the way for future demagogues of the populist right.